Children in Crisis
A boy, age 12, toils 11 hours a day breaking rocks in a quarry in India. He earns 85 cents (U.S.) a day.
A girl, ten, sells her body in a Bangkok brothel. She is not there because she wants to be. Her father sold her for $400.
A young soldier, ten, helps to man a roadblock in an African country. A machine gun hangs from his shoulder; he passes time smoking marijuana.
SUCH situations are all too common in the developing nations. Children in crisis number into the millions. Seven million languish in refugee camps; 30 million wander the streets homeless; 80 million between the ages of 10 and 14 labor at jobs that cripple their normal development; well over 100 million face death in this decade for want of food, clean water, and health care.
Consider just a few of the problems facing children around the globe.
About 8,000 children die each day because they have not been vaccinated against such diseases as measles and whooping cough. An additional 7,000 die daily because their parents do not know how to deal with the dehydration that results from diarrhea. Every day another 7,000 children die because they are not given a dollar’s worth of antibiotics to fight against respiratory infections.
For years medicines and therapies have been available to prevent or cure many of the illnesses that have long scourged the human family. But they have not reached millions who need them. As a result, during the past two decades, about a hundred million children perished from diarrheic and respiratory diseases alone. “It is as if a cure had finally been found for cancer but then little used for 20 years,” bemoaned UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 1990.
Despite the grim situation, progress has been made. For example, UNICEF and WHO (World Health Organization) have pursued a vigorous campaign of immunization. In 1991 it was announced that 80 percent of the world’s children had been immunized against the six vaccine-preventable diseases—measles, tetanus, diphtheria, polio, tuberculosis, and whooping cough. Together with parallel efforts in the control of diarrheic diseases, this has resulted in the saving of several million young lives each year.
But in recent years another disease—AIDS—has emerged to threaten and possibly even reverse all the progress made in African child survival over the past decade. During the decade of the 90’s, as many as 2.7 million youngsters may die from AIDS in Africa alone. By the year 2000, an additional three million to five million children in Central and East Africa may be orphaned because their parents died of AIDS.
All of us are painfully familiar with the tragic pictures of starving children with skeletonlike bodies, bloated bellies, and dull eyes staring at nothing. Those pathetic youngsters represent just the tip of the iceberg of malnutrition. Throughout the developing world, about 177 million children—1 in 3—go to bed hungry. And their number is increasing.
Persistent malnutrition prevents children from reaching their full mental and physical potential. Most malnourished children are frail, listless, lackluster-eyed, and apathetic. They play less and learn slower than well-fed children. They are also more susceptible to infection, a major factor that contributes to about a third of the 14 million child deaths in developing countries every year.
Just as modern science has produced medicines to fight disease, so it has also made it possible to produce and deliver more than enough food to feed everyone on earth. But there are no quick fixes for malnutrition. It cannot be eliminated by food shipments and vitamin pills. Its roots lie in relentless poverty, widespread ignorance, unclean water, unsanitary conditions, and lack of farmland in poverty-stricken areas.
As the global environmental crisis deepens, it is children who are most vulnerable. Consider air pollution. Under age three a child at rest inhales proportionally twice as much air, and with it twice as much pollution, as does a resting adult. And since children do not yet have fully developed kidneys, livers, and enzyme systems, they are not able to process pollutants as efficiently as adults can.
Children thus suffer more harm than adults do from lead additives in gasoline and from gases such as carbon monoxide, nitric oxides, and sulfur dioxide. This vulnerability contributes directly to the death of the more than 4.2 million children under five years of age who die of respiratory infections each year in developing countries. Many of the survivors grow up with respiratory diseases that plague them for the rest of their lives.
Since they are still growing physically, children are also more vulnerable to the effects of improper diet than are adults. In country after country, children are the big losers as forests shrink, deserts grow, and overworked farmland erodes, becomes tired, and produces less and less food. In Africa alone about 39 million children have had their growth stunted because of poor nutrition.
Adding to the problem is the severe shortage of good water. Throughout the developing world, only half of the children have access to clean drinking water, and even fewer have access to sanitary waste-disposal facilities.
In times past, most war victims were soldiers. No longer. Since the second world war, 80 percent of the 20 million killed and 60 million wounded in various conflicts have been civilians—mostly women and children. At one stage during the 1980’s, 25 children in Africa were dying every hour as a result of such conflicts! Countless numbers of children have been killed, wounded, abandoned, orphaned, or taken hostage.
The millions of children who are now growing up in refugee camps are often deprived of identity and nationality as well as of adequate food, health care, and education. Many find it impossible to acquire skills that will earn them a place in society.
But children are not merely victims of wars; they are also fighters of wars. In recent years 200,000 youngsters under 15 years of age have been recruited, armed, and trained to kill. Among them were those who lost life or limbs as they obeyed orders to open pathways through fields of land mines.
Throughout the developing world, poverty causes parents to sell their children for next to nothing in order to stave off hunger or to pay their debts. What happens to these youngsters? Some are forced into prostitution or into slavery in squalid sweatshops. Others are resold for up to $10,000 by middlemen or Western-based adoption agencies.
Indications show that child prostitution is on the increase and involves ever younger children, both boys and girls. In Brazil alone, there are thought to be as many as 500,000 teenage prostitutes. Child pornography is also thriving and has been given a boost by easily available video equipment.
It is difficult to comprehend the pain and the anguish behind the statistics. Mercifully, we cannot grasp suffering by the millions or by the thousands. Yet, many of us are aware of how terrible it is to observe the suffering or the death of just one child—a person with his or her own unique personality, a soul precious to God, an individual with just as much right to live and thrive as anyone else.
Without spending much time considering the unpleasant question of why the situation of children is in its present state, the delegates to the World Summit for Children spoke confidently about the future and vowed to tolerate the situation no longer. Their “Plan of Action” resolved, among other things, to achieve the following goals by the year 2000:
◻ To reduce the under-five child mortality rates of the year 1990 by one third.
◻ To reduce severe and moderate malnutrition among under-five children to one half of 1990 levels.
◻ To provide universal access to safe drinking water and to sanitary means of excreta disposal.
◻ To protect children in especially difficult circumstances, particularly in situations of armed conflict.
The additional cost of programs to bring about the goals that could prevent the deaths of 50 million children in the 1990’s has been estimated at $2.5 billion per year.
That is not big money in global terms. In one year American companies spend $2.5 billion on cigarette advertisements. In one day the world spends $2.5 billion on the military.
Presently, military expenditures—conservatively estimated by the United Nations to be over $1 trillion annually—exceed the combined annual incomes of the poorest half of humanity. The diversion of even 5 percent of this vast sum would be enough to speed up progress toward reaching the summit goals. For example, the price tag of a single F/A-18 fighter jet (over $30 million) is equal to the cost of enough vaccines to protect 400 million children against killer diseases.
The nations are able to meet the ambitious goals set out at the summit. They have the knowledge, the technology, and the money. The question remains, Will they?
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Six Points Parents Should Know
1. Breast milk alone is the best possible food for the first four to six months of a child’s life. It provides complete nutrition and immunizes the child against common infections.
2. By the age of four to six months, the child needs other foods. Introducing solid foods earlier increases the risk of infection; introducing them later leads to malnutrition.
3. A child under three years of age needs to be fed twice as often as an adult, with smaller amounts of more energy-rich food.
4. Food and drink should not be withheld when a child is ill or has diarrhea.
5. After an illness, a child needs an extra meal a day for a week to catch up on the growth lost.
6. At least two years between births is essential for the nutritional health of both mother and child.
Source: United Nations Children Fund
UNICEF/C/91/ Roger Lemoyne
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Only half the developing world’s children have access to clean drinking water
UNICEF/3893/89/ Maggie Murray-Lee
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Each child, with it’s unique personality, is precious to God and has as much right to thrive as anyone else
Photo: Cristina Solé/Godo-Foto